Probably no story in American politics is more familiar than that of the young accordion player who rises up from obscurity to command a spot on the Game and Fisheries committee of the state's House of Representatives. Such a story is that of Steve Seventy.
An accomplished accordion player, if such a thing can be imagined, Seventy grew up in and represented the city's South Side. Having learned the accordion's mysteries from his Slovak father, he played in numerous local music groups and for years ran a music store on Carson Street. But he had broader ambitions: He was active in Slovak ethnic groups and other community groups, and after several unsuccessful bids became the state House representative for the 22nd District seat in 1978.
Politics is a rough-and-tumble business, but Seventy did play the accordion and so clearly had experience doing things that many people find contemptible. Indeed, he was by all accounts a popular legislator throughout his four terms in office. Partly this was because he authored no controversial legislation: In politics, the nail that stands up is soon hammered down, and Seventy was a reliable back-bencher who didn't advance many initiatives of his own. But he took his responsibilities seriously. In 1988, when he was dying from pancreatic cancer, he appeared on the House floor in a wheelchair to cast votes on the state budget.
Seventy's popularity also reflected a generous, easygoing spirit. He formed lasting friendships with his colleagues, including a young North Side Democrat named Tom Murphy, who years before had actually taken music lessons at Seventy's store. Years later, the two actually shared a residence in Harrisburg along with Westmoreland County state Rep. Allen Kukovich and one-time county commissioner Mike Dawida. According to obituaries written about Seventy, the home came to be known as "the Animal House," though presumably Murphy didn't play the Belushi part.
Even Seventy's funeral was a bipartisan affair, drawing Democrats like then-Gov. Robert Casey and Republicans like then-House Minority leader Matt Ryan. It's also doubtless one of the few funerals on record in which a band was hired to play polkas.
Despite his quiet legislative record, Seventy does leave a lasting legacy behind. He helped lead a coalition to save South Side Hospital, which in the late 1970s was on the verge of closing. But he's probably best remembered today for an accomplishment that took place a decade after his death.
Since 1950, South 30th Street had been closed at the request of railroads serving the area's then-bustling steel mills. That request isolated a neighborhood known as South Side Hollow and the largely Slovak community living there.
The mills, of course, shut down in the 1980s, but it took a decade for the street to re-open anyway: As with everything else in Pittsburgh, it took 10 years to figure out what to do after the collapse of steel. But Seventy had mentioned the need for reopening the street to Murphy while the two were in Harrisburg together, and years later Murphy delivered. The street reopened in 1998, affording the South Side Hollow its first direct access to Carson Street in a half-century. And the newly restored street was named, appropriately enough, for the Slovak politician who'd been a friend to the mayor who re-opened it, and to countless Pittsburghers who lived nearby.
Sadly, Seventy died a lifelong bachelor at age 61 -- nine years short of his name. Also sadly, his successor didn't live up to his good name either, for much less defensible reasons: Frank Gigliotti won Seventy's seat and represented the area until he was drummed out in an ethics scandal. It's tempting to wonder how Seventy would have handled the issues we're facing today if he'd lived longer. Seventy would have been receptive to proposals for expanding gambling: He played the ponies himself and, according to a newspaper obituary, during his illness once asked his legislative colleagues to place a Daily Number bet -- 103 -- based on the number of cc's of fluid in his intravenous bottle.
Seventy was generous with his winnings, but he didn't always win. In a May 2001 Post-Gazette story, Murphy's wife, Mona, recalled that Seventy would try to get Murphy to accompany him to the track, and "It used to drive Seventy nuts because every time he would finally go, Tom would win."
One wonders where the mayor's luck has gone every time he's gambled with city finances. He could probably use Seventy these days -- if not for his luck than for his winning personality.